On a Wednesday afternoon in late August, Canadian film producer Karen Harnisch is in the midst of closing the deal on an upcoming project while preparing for the premiere of her production company’s latest, White Lie, days later at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Alongside director Andrew Cividino, Harnisch runs Film Forge, which the pair founded in 2007.) She answers my call with graciousness and warmth, despite what I presume to be chaotic surroundings, and quickly tells me two things: The first is that she’s on Vancouver Island with her family and it’s very nice to be near the ocean. The second is that today should have been her son Seymour’s first birthday.
After the critical success of Film Forge’s breakout title, Cividino’s 2015 drama Sleeping Giant, he and Harnisch set out to broaden the scope of the films for which they’d become known. “It was an aspiration for all of us to create a really polished film that graduated us from the mumblecore-y microbudget world,” she says. “We wanted to show that we could make a ‘real’ movie.” The pair signed on to develop White Lie, a labyrinthine film written and directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas and starring Kacey Rohl as a university student who fakes a cancer diagnosis.
“So often in film, villains are villains and heroes are heroes. But actually most of us live in the spectrum between being absolutely villainous and absolutely heroic,” Harnisch says. “We saw a lot of opportunity in this script.”
With White Lie deep in development, Harnisch learned that her newborn son, younger brother to Leon, would not survive. She turned to the Toronto-based production company Babe Nation for assistance in completing the film as she began the immeasurably merciless work of balancing grief with raising Leon. (It was in the lobby of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children that Harnisch pitched her co-production plea to Babe Nation’s Katie Nolan.)
“I’m very appreciative of the fact that filmmaking allows me to work in an emotional space,” Harnisch says. “I’ve realized that our society is developed to make people compartmentalize their emotions. We’re not supposed to be emotional when we go to work. … Emotions are sequestered to therapy sessions or the home environment. I’ve started consciously trying to break that down. Yes, I’m working. But I’m also going through a very hard time. That is something I’m going to bring into my work every day.”
She resists the notion that open emotionality is a detriment.
“We tend to pathologize emotion, as though showing emotion means you’re unstable,” she says. “I am perfectly stable. I can get things done and be a reliable human being and honour my commitments while still having a beating heart.”
Through loss, Harnisch has begun to advocate for any person – or character – to be their full self in situations where the convention would be to seclude the hard parts. Our conversation, for example, moves gently from camera quality and technical choices and gender representation in the film industry to Seymour, then back again. In making room for anguish, there is wholeness.
Raised in North Toronto and now based in Hamilton (where White Lie was filmed and takes place), Harnisch started experimenting with film when she was in high school and went on to complete a degree in film at Ryerson University. She and Cividino founded Film Forge in 2007.
Similar to Sleeping Giant, White Lie unfolds from within a dark, uncomfortable den where its protagonist must co-habitate with a secret of their own construction. The seedy and immoral, yet tender (if you look hard enough) character of Katie offers an interesting portrait of young womanhood in the context of today’s cultural climate, with many films seemingly prioritizing morally enviable female leads with a lesson to impart.
“Even as #MeToo was unfolding, I knew this was a film I needed to get behind. I still felt that it had an incredibly relevant message for the world and that our rendering of the character was going to be nuanced in a way that did complicate the representation of the female character, and that’s what I want,” Harnisch says. “For decades, the entertainment world has put out anti-hero stories about men, and we’ve accepted them. It’s acceptable for us to watch a movie about a despicable man and still find him entertaining and fascinating. We have not had the same opportunities to the same extent with female characters. I leaned into the idea of doing an anti-hero story about a woman.”
This roundabout way of creating characters who exist as fuller, more dynamic portraits of women may not, at first, seem like solid feminist practice. But Harnisch is playing the long game, with her goals fixed on incremental impact. It’s an ethos she also applies behind the scenes.
“As a producer, I identify as a feminist and I try to uphold what I conceive to be feminist principles in my filmmaking, but I’m not exclusively producing work by women,” she says. “I think I have a role to play in terms of helping to deconstruct patriarchy. I don’t see why we would want men to not be part of that process. … In order to change patriarchal norms, we have to engage with patriarchy."
Harnisch approaches the task of understanding people, characters, plots, societies, facts, lies and tragedies with audacious zeal. Her willingness to interface with affliction, whether her own or in her films, affords her a rare and magnificent clarity through which verisimilitude can emerge.
“I try to make films that get at what it’s really like to be a human being. Characters who demonstrate vulnerability – that’s the essence of it for me. That’s what I’m trying to create. … It’s a waste of energy to try and hide reality.”
White Lie premieres at TIFF on Sept. 7, at 3 p.m., at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with an additional screening on Sept. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto.
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